Barbecue and ‘bibingka’ dive gets two thumbs up from Guy Fieri

Nondescript eatery gets a surprise visit from celebrity chef and a huge bump in sales. TFLA photo

Nondescript eatery gets a surprise visit from celebrity chef and a huge bump in sales. TFLA photo

By Cecile Caguingin Ochoa

I was driving around familiar haunts last year on Temple Street when I found a nondescript eatery called The Park’s Finest. What caught my attention was not the appetizing picture of barbecue ribs on their front banner but the words “corn bread bibingka.”

I stopped, walked in and found it was indeed the place to get your authentic Pinoy-marinated meats (beef ribs, pulled pork, tri-tip) and grilled with sauces made from a fusion of vinegar, a lot of garlic, pepper, hint of sugar (I won’t disclose the secret ingredient, sorry) just the way your ‘nanay’ did.

I was pleasantly surprised that there would be a Filipino restaurant between stuck-up Bunker Hill (where a Japanese tempura house used to be for more than 30 years) and the plebeian Historic Filipino Town. A small framed poster of Philip Vera Cruz, a well-known labor leader of the ‘50s, greeted me at the reception counter, and I thought the proprietors must be FilAm activists. I was not disappointed as I was later told by community friends; the joint was started by home-grown Temple Street and Bonnie Brae cohorts.

The big story this Spring is how celebrity chef Guy Fieri of the Food Network’s Triple D (“Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”) walked in to sample the famous cornbread bibingka, autographed his image by the bar, and the Park’s Finest jumped 500 percent in customers.

Guy Fieri

Guy Fieri

“Our community won,” gushed Edwin Sumagaysay, with his new title as the eatery’s human resources director. Before Fieri’s visit and review, which aired three weeks ago, this joint was barely surviving. Now the owners (there’s five partners) are thinking of buying new houses, having another kid – their American Dream has materialized.

“We have increased our personnel from 10 to 50,” according to Edwin. And counting based on Yelp’s reviews.

The Park's famous cornbread bibingka. Yelp photo by Roland L.

The Park’s famous cornbread bibingka. Yelp photo by Roland L.

Executive Director of the Search to Involve Pilipino Americans, Inc. (SIPA) Joel Jacinto said this restaurant grew out of the owners’ backyard catering, serving conferences, private parties and Philippine arts and culture celebrations. The owners were former junior high school kids who came to SIPA’s after-school enrichment programs in the 1990s.

“John Eric Concordia and his group graduated from our Entrepreneurial Training Program where we taught business basics to community members,” he added.

The establishment’s formula is to create a stomping ground for Filipino Americans and their friends to go back to recipes reminding them of their ‘lolas’ and mothers’ cooking, or their ‘tatays’’ backyard barbecue.

The other proprietors, Christine Araquel, Mike and Anne Pajimula and Oscar Bautista at first collaborated on waiting the tables, while perfecting recipes like Mama Leah’s coconut beef, the famous cornbread bibingka, among other delicacies. An assortment of international sausages, including “longanisa,” turned out to be an all-time favorite with the pulled pork, based on restaurant reviews.

L.A. County Commissioner Carol Kimbrough remembers supporting this group of “kids” in their enterprise referring them to organizations doing fundraisers. The restaurant first didn’t have stainless silverware so they served clients in paper plates and plastic; then another neighborhood eatery lent them metal tableware and ceramic plates. Now that they are in the Food Network, we can only share in their victory and say “Atin Ito,” exclaimed Carol.

They don’t occupy a large place so when you feel like visiting, phone first. You may just run into Fieri. The Park’s Finest is at: 1267 West Temple Street, Los Angeles; (213) 481-2800.

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